Tendai Mtawarira has spent his rugby career defying the odds as a trailblazing rugby legend. He is a much-loved rugby player better known as the ‘beast’. Given the beast of a year we’ve had, it’s fitting that we hear from a much loved and respected beast, Tendai, to share his experiences both on and off the field.
To watch a recording of this conversation, go to Nedgroup Investments Insights on YouTube.
How it all started
As a young boy of 16 while living in Zimbabwe, he realised he had talent for the game and wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a professional rugby player. With no professional league in Zimbabwe, he looked to South Africa and was scouted by the Sharks in his final year of school. He came to South Africa in 2005 where he joined the Sharks Academy. Despite numerous challenges, his drive, hunger and willingness to never give up meant he was able to defy the odds and break many barriers along the way. Wearing the Springbok jersey for the first time was a highlight of his career. He recalls singing the national anthem with huge pride and feeling privileged to be among other rugby giants, such as Victor Matfield, John Smith, Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger in his first game and wanting to make a contribution to the team from the start.
Coping with his health challenges
In 2010, Tendai’s health came under the spotlight with media reports indicating that as a result of a heart condition, he may no longer be able to play. Fortunately, his condition was not detrimental to his rugby career and after a short hiatus he returned to the field to play probably the best rugby of his career. He coped with the media scrutiny by blocking out the negative energy and negative talk and focused on his family, friends and mentors who encouraged him and believed he would go back and play his best rugby yet. When he returned, his mental strength and focus was aligned and he returned fresh, revitalized and ready to go.
The 2019 World Cup experience
Tendai credits the World Cup as probably the most wholesome experience of his career. The team were made to feel welcome from the time they arrived in Tokyo and people went out of their way to make them feel at home. The quarterfinals were tough for them because they were so happy in Japan and loved the people, except for that one week when they were the ‘enemy’. He admits it was really tough to knock them out although it made up for the loss in 2015.
Transforming the Springbok team
Tendai admits that being part of a sport that was dominated by white Afrikaners was tough and he felt very alone for the first six years of his Springbok career, being pretty much the only black person in the team. There was no diversity or inclusivity and the culture barrier was tough to cope with resulting in a lot of black players falling out of the system at the time. Being a Zimbabwean, he was also subjected to xenophobic attacks. Fortunately, his resilience and keeping his sights set on the bigger vision of wanting to leave a legacy and inspire the next generation, helped him to keep going forward. He wanted to show other youngsters that it was possible to come from difficult circumstances and defy the odds. He has, however, seen tangible change in the culture of rugby, with the biggest change coming when Rassie was appointed as coach. He credits Rassie with changing the game, the setup and the team environment and implementing changes that Rassie himself had wanted to see when he had played previously. The first thing Rassie did was to address the issue of transformation, which he tackled head on aiming to achieve a team that was representative of the country. The team went on this mission together with everyone buying into the plan with one common goal, which Tendai believes is why they were able to be so successful.
The positives of Covid
While he acknowledges that Covid has had many negative impacts, he believes it also gave people the opportunity to take a breather, get some perspective on their lives and on what’s really important. For him, the biggest positive was spending time with his family and children. He feels that lockdown allowed people to address the elephants in the room and to express things they hadn’t been able to before.
Life after rugby
Tendai had always tried to prepare for life after rugby, so he found the transition was fairly seamless. He’s been involved in a security company, which he’s been running for the last ten years so found it quite easy to transition back into full-time work. He’s also in the process of completing an MBA through the Henley Business School, which he’s found insightful and a bit challenging! He’s very excited about the work, however, he’s doing with The Beast Foundation, which focuses on empowering youth across the continent through sport, education and life skills development. He wants to change lives and create the future beasts, future rugby players and professionals. Tendai is also passionate about and committed to living in South Africa. Having travelled extensively around the world, he believes there is no place like South Africa to call home. While he acknowledges there are issues, he believes the positives far outweigh them and wants to be a part of the solution and part of the movement for change. He believes that the future is bright, with the best still ahead of us and that we need to come together collectively and buy into the plan to make South Africa the best it can be.